Q. I feel stupid saying, “Breaking up is hard to do,” but it is! My kids come home from their dad’s, and it seems like nothing is good enough. He has more TV channels. He has a bigger house. He has a swimming pool. I’m working as hard as I can to make things nice for the kids, but it seems everything at their dad’s is better. He knows how difficult it is for me, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I think he likes that the kids prefer his home. I need help and I don’t know what to do. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. The stresses felt when moving from a two-parent, two-income household to a single, one-income household is a huge transition for everyone. But there’s good news and there’s bad news here. The good news is most divorced or separated parents try to do the best they can for their kids. The bad news is the kids are comparing more than just homes. If you read between the lines, you will hear them voicing their frustration about their parents’ breakup. And, I have found it’s quite common for one parent to feel like the underdog while the other parent secretly rejoices, feeling that the kids’ preference is a signal that they have “won.” If this is the case, neither parent is really hearing what the children are saying.
When a child prefers one parent’s home to the other, that’s a huge red flag. It means the parents are not communicating. This is not surprising. Most parents do their best to avoid each other after a breakup. But in reality, everyone is trying to get their sea legs, all the while the kids are going back and forth between homes watching the chaos. And what do you hear as a result? “We don’t have to do that at Dad (or Mom’s). Dad has more channels. Mom has better food.” So, yes, the kids may be comparing that one home has better stuff than the other, but this also drives home how different their life is now that their parents are no longer a couple. It’s the complaining that life is so different now that is important for parents to note. Not the TV. Not the pool. It’s the frustration and discontent that need to register.
So how do you get on the same page? When one parent feels as if they have won and the other loses, ego is pushing the interaction, which is not in the best interest of the kids.
The reality is sometimes there is a huge difference in creature comforts between homes. There may be nothing you can do about that. You CAN reach out for help, however. You CAN concentrate on lessening negativity between mom and dad. Good Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #2 is, “Ask for help if you need it.” It can be something as simple as offering to pick up the kids from an extracurricular when it’s not your time to be with them. When the kids see the cooperation, you will hear less about who has what.
Bottom line: You’re still in this together. For your kids. That’s good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.